LAWRENCE — Of the handful of traits Bill Self looks to when identifying potentially elite defensive teams, at least one can be checked off by this year’s Kansas basketball squad.
“First of all, it’s hard to be great defensively if you’re not tough,” Self said Thursday, “and I think this team has potential to be a tough physical and mentally tough team.”
On the other hand, No. 2-ranked KU (6-1) certainly has room to grow in another one of those areas of defensive mastery.
And if they don’t, these Jayhawks could find themselves short of their potential ceiling on that end of the court, Self indicated.
“It’s hard to be really good if you don’t communicate, and I think we’re bad communicators,” Self continued. “So that’s an area I could see us potentially getting a lot better.”
Through seven games, KU ranks 31st nationally in opponent shooting percentage (37.8%), down 3 full percentage points from the clip surrendered by last year’s squad. The Jayhawks also sit at 16th nationally with 9.5 steals per game entering a 6 p.m. Saturday clash with No. 20 Colorado (6-0) at Allen Fieldhouse.
During his team’s successful three-game run at last week’s Maui Invitational, Self on multiple occasions lauded his team’s effort on the defensive end, in particular following victories over BYU and now-No. 19 Dayton. Still, without tangible progress in on-court verbal communication, the team may not realize a defensive potential that could be as high as any group Self has coached.
“The reality of it is you have to open your mouth and you have to talk,” Self said. “Even when we talk in practice, we may tell somebody a screen is coming, but we’re telling them too late so we can’t adjust our feet. Just things like that, you’ve got to let people know early and often and (have) everybody chirping.”
Kevin Young was “the best” at that, Self said. Landen Lucas was “unbelievable” at it. On the surface, this year’s KU team doesn’t appear to have an obvious candidate to fill the role.
Neither of the Jayhawks’ most important players, senior center Udoka Azubuike and sophomore point guard Devon Dotson, is known as a talkative individual. Two of the players with the biggest personalities, junior forward Silvio De Sousa and sophomore guard Ochai Agbaji, are both mired in slumps to start the 2019-20 season, perhaps limiting confidence in their ability to give others instruction.
Of everyone on the roster, junior guard Marcus Garrett could be the team’s best hope to take ownership of the on-court vocal leader position. But the 6-foot-5 defensive ace also isn’t known for being chatty, and even if he can successfully leave his comfort zone in that regard, he’s just one of five Jayhawks on the court at a given time.
That this needs to be a collective effort, Self indicated, is perhaps the biggest emphasis.
“I actually think we’re gaining on it, but this is not a very talkative team at all,” Self said. “And I do think that will hurt us, keep us from becoming really good, especially defensively, if we don’t start communicating better and more often.”
So what are the other traits Self looks to in identifying potentially great defensive teams?
While his list Thursday was admittedly off the top of his head, he did point to two more.
First is the ability to fight through ball screens, which he acknowledged his team is “not great” at just yet. Second is the collective vision needed to see a play develop two or three passes ahead — “help the helper’s helper,” Self said.
“That’s one thing that I was always so impressed with good defensive teams,” Self said. “If one guy is beat and a guy helps, you’ve got to cover for his man, but when you cover for his man, that leaves your man open and somebody’s got to cover for you. When you have confidence that you can just always have that behind you, I think that allows teams to become really good defensively, as well.”